For years, fantasy games were considered a hobby for sports enthusiasts who sought more excitement and interest from watching live professional sports events.
But with more than 15 million people playing fantasy games in a number of sports, the once-small cottage industry has blossomed into a multimillion-dollar revenue generator — and into an important programming staple for several sports-oriented networks.
Niche sports networks and national cable services are beginning to roll out fantasy-sports oriented programs to provide important information and statistics for its growing number of players. Executives say such programming not only endears the network to the hard-core sports fan, but also helps to touch the elusive demographic of men 18 to 34, which make up the lion's share of fantasy players.
According to the St. Louis-based Fantasy Sports Trade Association, more than 15 million adults over the past year have engaged in fantasy sports, which allow participants to create teams and compete in leagues using real statistics derived from players in a particular sport.
Further, online fantasy sports games for football, basketball, baseball and golf, among others, generate more than $500 million a year, according to the New York Daily News.
With about 75% of fantasy players participating in football leagues, it's not surprising that most of today's attendant sports shows are tailored to the professional-gridiron circuit. Given pro football's Sunday scheduling anchor, the National Football League is tailor-made for both avid and casual fantasy sports fans, as well as channels seeking to develop weekly one- or two-hour shows, according to network executives.
Fox Sports Net last September launched its first ever fantasy football show with Ultimate Fantasy Football, which airs late on Saturday nights for fans that want to set their teams before the early Sunday-afternoon games.
Of course, for pigskin-based programmers like NFL Network and The Football Network, fantasy programming plays a much greater role in their bid to tackle the interests of rabid fans.
While TFN currently offers a weekly fantasy show, Fantasy Football 2003, it expects to build its fantasy roster to as many as five programs per week next season, according to president Jerry Solomon.
For the most part, Solomon said the national networks have underserved fantasy-sports fans.
"We decided to do this as a branding element for the network, but it will also become a staple of our programming going forward because its something that people are interested in every day," he said. "The average fantasy fan spends three to six hours a week working on their team.
"It's a huge market and it's very untapped," said Solomon.
'Red Zone' Stats
Male-targeted Spike TV recognized the appeal of fantasy sports programming when it reached a rare repurposing deal to carry TFN's Fantasy Football 2003
on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
"It's definitely something that our audience is interested in," said Jim Burns, the network's senior vice president, current series and sports productions.
While the show isn't a ratings hit — it's averaging between a 0.1 and 0.3 for both plays, according to TFN — Burns said it's something that really speaks to guys.
The NFL Network has an even grander design with regard to fantasy sports, turning over its Sunday-afternoon schedule to serve fantasy fans. The network, which launched Nov. 3, offers a whopping eight hours of fantasy sports information, up-to-the minute stats and game highlights as part of Red Zone.
The show — which runs concurrently with NFL game telecasts on CBS and Fox — is data-driven, with immediate updates on each of the afternoon's contests. The updates include stats on the key fantasy positions of quarterback, running back, wide receivers, and kickers for each team. The network employs the Sporting News Radio feed of NFL game action.
NFL vice president of programming Charles Coplin said Red Zone
is part of several programming initiatives the network offers to fantasy players. The network also provides fantasy tips and analysis as part of its daily primetime show, Total Access.
"If you're a fantasy football player, clearly you're watching [NFL] games, but you're also able to tap into this show which is nothing more than a graphic interface that's constantly giving you updated fantasy football information," Coplin said. "We basically turn our whole Sunday afternoon into something that we feel enhances our network partners' coverage of the games and [it] really ties into the fantasy football player.
"I can't imagine a fantasy football player coming to the Red Zone
and not feeling jazzed about the programming we're giving them."
Football isn't the only sport with fantasy programming elements. The National Basketball Association's cable network, NBA TV, offers a daily fantasy show recapping the evening's game action from a fantasy perspective.
The 30-minute Gatorade Virtual GM
airs at 1 a.m. (ET) and not only provides game highlights, but in-depth analysis of player performances and statistics, according to NBA TV vice president Steven Herbst. Show host and fantasy guru Rick Kamla also takes e-mails and phone calls from viewers seeking opinions about fantasy players and even trade proposals.
Herbst said the explosion in fantasy basketball over the past few years has forced the network to create programming to serve the audience. He also said both players and coaches watch the show.
"When it first started, it was an interesting show and a service that we wanted to provide, but now it's a real necessity to service the fans who are really caught up in the craze of fantasy basketball and covering the NBA," Herbst said. "We get great reaction from it — even with the 1 a.m. start time — so much so that it's really a necessity to make sure it's on seven nights a week. It's really become a given that you have to do a show like this."
While the niche sports networks are developing most of the fantasy sports fare, the industry's growth is not lost on the national networks.
ESPN is beginning to introduce fantasy segments within its highlights and preview shows. During Sunday NFL Countdown, for example, ESPN now airs a segment dubbed "Hector and Victor," an animated vignette originally launched on ESPN.com. It features two football junkies providing fantasy perspective and predictions on the day's upcoming games.
While the network doesn't have plans to create a traditional long-form fantasy sports series, it still offers about four or five hours of fantasy sports information a week through various programs, as well as fantasy features on other networks such as ESPNews.
ESPN director of fantasy games Chris Nicholas said the network can't afford to ignore the fantasy fan.
"Other networks and other shows have been first to do certain things, but we're going to focus on the things that we're up to now and do well," he said. "We're a super-strong brand and people come to ESPN to get news and information, so we're confident we'll attract the fantasy fan."
Along with NFL Network's Fantasy Football 2003, Spike TV is also planning to create a fantasy baseball show next spring, according to Burns.
Also next year, the network may launch a 12-month, weekly fantasy sports show that would encompass year-round facts and analysis for all professional sports, said Burns.
For Spike TV, which doesn't feature live sports programming, fantasy sports programming may be the best way to reach the male 18-to-34 sports fan. Fantasy Football 2003
has brought in 20% more 18-34 male viewers during its Saturday 9 a.m. time slot than previous outdoor sports programming that aired during that time.
"Spike is never going to be in the sports-rights game because it's too expensive, so in order to get our audience into sports, we have to do programming that surrounds those sports," Burns said.
It's also bringing in advertisers. Network executives say that sponsors are slowly but surely finding the value in such specialized shows.
General Motors Corp., Subway, Xbox and McDonald's have all placed ads on TFN and Spike TV's Fantasy Football 2003. "The advertising community was attracted to it, and we hope that will continue to build in the future," Solomon said.
Beer brewer Coors is a major sponsor of NFL Network's fantasy segments on Total Access, while athlete-targeted drink manufacturer Gatorade sponsors NBA TV's Virtual GM. Network executives say advertisers know they're reaching a mostly young, avid sports fan through fantasy games.
"The average fantasy football player spends almost three hours per week visiting their fantasy teams, so it is only a matter of time before mainstream advertisers embrace our booming industry," Fantasy Sports Trade Association president Greg Ambrosius said. "With that kind of frequency, advertisers will be sure their message is heard by this highly desirable demographic."
Added Coplin: "It's low-hanging fruit [for advertisers]. I think everyone has caught on to the fact that fantasy sports is big business, and it's something that our fans are really taking to and we believe that it's a core product of our programming."
Network executives say as the number of fantasy players rise, so will programming devoted to the segment. In fact, executives predict that networks wanting to reach sports fans will inevitably have to offer some form of fantasy programming.
"If you're a sports network, I don't think you can avoid it, because it's too prevalent," NFL Network's Coplin said. "I think a lot of your core audience would say, 'I like this, but I'm missing a key ingredient that drives me to the sport.' "
Added NBA TV's Herbst: "I think you'll see it as a business really start to explode and see a legitimate number of networks really start to focus on this thing in the same way the video game industry has blown up. The business dictates that fantasy is a big business and here to stay."